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Code Noir

Code Noir

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The Code noir was a decree originally passed by France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

's King Louis XIV
Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV , known as Louis the Great or the Sun King , was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days...

 in 1685. The Code Noir defined the conditions of slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 in the French colonial empire
French colonial empire
The French colonial empire was the set of territories outside Europe that were under French rule primarily from the 17th century to the late 1960s. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial empire of France was the second-largest in the world behind the British Empire. The French colonial empire...

, restricted the activities of free Negroes, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism (it included a provision that all slaves must be baptized and instructed in the Roman Catholic religion), and ordered all Jews out of France's colonies. The Code Noir also gave plantation owners extreme disciplinary power over their slaves, including legitimizing corporal punishment as a method of maintaining control. The code has been described by Tyler Stovall as "one of the most extensive official documents on race, slavery, and freedom ever drawn up in Europe."


According to his 1787 analysis of the Code Noir, Louis Sela-Molins claimed that its two primary objectives were to assert French sovereignty in her colonies and to secure the future of the cane sugar plantation economy. Central to these goals was control of the slave trade. The Code aimed to provide a legal framework for slavery, to establish protocol governing the conditions of colonial inhabitants, and to end illegal slave trade. Religious morals also governed the crafting of the Code Noir - this was in part a result of the influence of the influx of Catholic leaders arriving in Martinique between 1673 and 1685.

The Code Noir was one of the many laws inspired by Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a French politician who served as the Minister of Finances of France from 1665 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. His relentless hard work and thrift made him an esteemed minister. He achieved a reputation for his work of improving the state of French manufacturing...

, who began to prepare the first (1685) version. After his 1683 death, his son, the Marquis de Seignelay, completed it. It was ratified by Louis XIV and adopted by the Saint-Domingue sovereign council in 1687 after it was rejected by the parliament. The second version of the code was passed by Louis XV at age 13 in 1724. It then was applied in the West Indies in 1687, Guyana in 1704, RĂ©union in 1723, and Louisiana in 1724. It was never implemented in French Canada, where slavery was always prohibited.


At this time in the Caribbean, Jews were mostly active in the Dutch colonies, so their presence was seen as an unwelcome Dutch influence in French colonial life. Furthermore, the majority of the population in French colonies were slaves. Plantation owners largely governed their land and holdings in absentia, with subordinate workers dictating the day to day running of the plantations. Because of their enormous population, in addition to the harsh conditions facing slaves (for example, Saint Domingue has been described as one of the most brutally efficient colonies of the era), small scale slave revolts were common. Despite some well-intentioned provisions, the Code Noir was never effectively or strictly enforced, in particular with regard to protection to slaves and limitations on corporal punishment.


In 60 articles, the document specified that:
  • Jews could not reside in the French colonies (art. 1)
  • slaves must be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church
    Roman Catholic Church
    The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

     (art. 2)
  • the exercise of any religion other than Catholicism
    Catholicism is a broad term for the body of the Catholic faith, its theologies and doctrines, its liturgical, ethical, spiritual, and behavioral characteristics, as well as a religious people as a whole....

     was forbidden (art. 3)
  • slave masters must be Roman Catholic (art. 4)
  • non-Catholic colonial subjects must not interfere with the Catholic practices of other subjects (art. 5)
  • all colonial subjects and slaves must observe Catholic holidays regardless of their own faith, and no one must work on Sundays and on holidays (art. 6)
  • slave markets must not be held on Catholic holidays (art. 7)
  • only Catholic marriages would be recognized (art. 8)
  • white men would be fined for having children with slave concubines owned by another man, as would the slave concubine's master. If the man engaged in sexual relations with a slave was the master of the slave concubine, the slave and any resulting children would be removed from his ownership. If a free, unmarried black man should have relations with a slave owned by him, he should then be married to the slave concubine, thus freeing her and any resulting child from slavery (art. 9)
  • weddings between slaves must be carried out only with the masters' permission (art. 10). Slaves must not be married without their own consent (art. 11)
  • children born between married slaves were also slaves, belonging to the female slave's master (art. 12)
  • children between a male slave and a female free woman were free ; children between a female slave and a free man were slaves (art. 13)
  • slaves must not carry weapons except under permission of their masters for hunting purposes (art. 15)
  • slaves belonging to different masters must not gather at any time under any circumstance (art. 16)
  • slaves should not sell sugar cane, even with permission of their masters (art. 18)
  • slaves should not sell any other commodity without permission of their masters (art. 19 - 21)
  • masters must give food (quantities specified) and clothes to their slaves, even to those who were sick or old (art. 22 - 27)
  • (unclear) slaves could testify but only for information (art. 30-32)
  • a slave who struck his or her master, his wife, mistress or children would be executed (art. 33)
  • fugitive slaves absent for a month should have their ears cut off and be branded. For another month their hamstring
    In human anatomy, the hamstring refers to any one of the three posterior thigh muscles, or to the tendons that make up the borders of the space behind the knee. In modern anatomical contexts, however, they usually refer to the posterior thigh muscles, or the tendons of the semitendinosus, the...

     would be cut and they would be branded again. A third time they would be executed (art. 38)
  • free blacks who harbour fugitive slaves would be beaten by the slave owner and fined 300 pounds of sugar per day of refuge given; other free people who harbour fugitive slaves would be fined 10 livres tournois
    Livre tournois
    The livre tournois |pound]]) was:#one of numerous currencies used in France in the Middle Ages; and#a unit of account used in France in the Middle Ages and the early modern period.-Circulating currency:...

     per day (art. 39)
  • (unclear) a master who falsely accused a slave of a crime and had the slave put to death would be fined (art. 40)
  • masters may chain and beat slaves but may not torture nor mutilate them (art. 42)
  • masters who killed their slaves would be punished (art. 43)
  • slaves were community property
    Community property
    Community property is a marital property regime that originated in civil law jurisdictions and is now also found in some common law jurisdictions...

    and could not be mortgaged, and must be equally split between the master's inheritors, but could be used as payment in case of debt or bankruptcy, and otherwise sold (art. 44 - 46, 48 - 54)
  • slave husband and wife (and their prepubescent children) under the same master were not to be sold separately (art. 47)
  • slave masters 20 years of age (25 years without parental permission) may free their slaves (art. 55)
  • slaves who were declared to be sole legatees by their masters, or named as executors of their wills, or tutors of their children, should be held and considered as freed slaves (art. 56)
  • freed slaves were French subjects, even if born elsewhere (art. 57)
  • freed slaves had the same rights as French colonial subjects (art. 58,59)
  • fees and fines paid with regards to the Code Noir must go to the royal administration, but one third would be assigned to the local hospital (art. 60)